Classical Album Review: Karina Canellakis conducts Bartók — Pretty Much as Good as They Come

By Jonathan Blumhofer

This is an album of top-notch orchestral playing. Yet the real star is Karina Canellakis.

There are debuts, and then there are Debuts. Count Karina Canellakis’s new all-Bartók album with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (NRPO) is among the latter. The effort, the pairing’s inaugural release on the Pentatone label, stands, despite a couple of small caveats, as about as good a Bartók offering as they come.

It’s unsurprising that Canellakis and her band sound so comfortable in the composer’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra: this is about as canonic as 20th-century fare gets. But their performance is infused with a sustained intensity, attention to detail, and a sense of occasion that’s special.

Throughout this reading, Canellakis basically takes Bartók at his word regarding tempos and dynamics; the results are stirring and invigorating. The big first movement, shimmering eerily over its introductory section, unfolds with becoming freshness over its vigorous main body.

Though the “Giuoco della coppie” moves briskly — perhaps a touch too fast at times (though the inner-voice interjections speak with enchanting effect) — the “Elegia’s” huge range of colors, fervent string lines, and fluent woodwind dovetailings are perfectly calibrated.

So, too, the flowing lyricism of the “Intermezzo interotto” (whose sarcasm, at least as represented by the vulgar trombone glissandi, is played dry straight, not hammed up) and the exuberant fugal passagework of the finale. The last is a real triumph, featuring clarion orchestral playing (the strings’ 16th-note runs are breathtakingly unified) and a cathartic sense of arrival at the coda.

Filling out the disc is Bartók’s early Four Orchestral Pieces. Written in 1912 but not orchestrated until 1921, the Pieces are, like the Concerto, informed by the composer’s love of folk music, but structured in a very different way. Again, Canellakis has the full measure of the music.

The NRPO revels in the first movement’s play of light and shadow. Meantime, the third’s delicate exchanges of lines and the finale’s searing, expressive climaxes speak just as they should.

For character, theirs is an interpretation that sings and dances in equal measure. The “Preludio’s” lyrical figures are always in the foreground, as are the “Intermezzo’s” serenely lilting figures. But when the moment comes to attack — as in the Scherzo’s stormy, violent gestures or the intense, pained outbursts of the “Marcia funebre” — the ensemble doesn’t hold back.

To be sure, this is an album of top-notch orchestral playing. Yet the real star is Canellakis, whose grasp of this fare rivals that of Solti (who studied with Bartók) and Susanna Mälkki (one of his finest living advocates).

What’s more, she has fully enlisted the ensemble in her vision of this music. That’s remarkable. Canellakis and the NRPO clearly understand each other. They’re a team that’s going places. Buckle up: it’s sure to be an exciting ride.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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